Ten Things to Remember When Thinking About Thai Politics

(Time to repost this series before I go on to write something about how I see things now)

1. Thailand is not now and has never been a fully functional liberal-democratic state. Pretty much everyone acknowledges this but then many conveniently forget it when criticizing various political actors for not behaving like people working within a liberal-democracy. This is a problem for both “sides”, both in the actual arena and in the various boxes and cheapseats that make up the popcorn gallery.

So, for example, when people question the wisdom and/or courage of Yingluck and her administration for not cracking down on Suthep, or for not taking a stand on LM laws and their abuse, or for not doing more for UDD political prisoners, they are assuming that the “government” of Thailand has the power to do so. They don’t. There are powerful forces in the miltary, the bureaucracy, and the palace circles that can call out the yellow dogs any time they wish. This is also why it was a blunder of epic proportions for Thaksin to have attempted to initiate his return from exile with the amnesty bill fiasco that provoked this most recent round of realpolitik-in-action.

2. The Puea Thai government, aka The Thaksin Regime, was elected in an election that is acknowledged to have been free and fair by all but those who hate Thaksin and all his works. This makes it different from the previous Democrat-dominated coalition government of Abhisit and Kamnan Suthep.

When disingenuous supporters of the status quo, like Voranai at the Bangkok Post, prate about the “moral equivalence” of Suthep and Yinglak, many foreign heads nod at the wisdom expressed therein (thus disproving the oft-claimed superiority of western education). One is a proto-fascist agitator for the dismantling of what democracy exists in Thailand and the other is the head of an elected government; only a halfwit or a slimy propagandist would suggest that these are somehow equivalent in the context of the Thai political drama unfolding recently.

3. There is nothing particularly “educated” about the Thai middle classes. In fact, an argument could be made that the longer one has spent in Thai schools and universities –learning to grovel rather than think, to parrot nationalist and royalist nonsense rather than express opinions, and at best to tune out the drone of  “teachers” rather than listen carefully and critically to what is being said– the less likely one is to have the capacity to think, speak or behave like a rational citizen in a democratic system.

The same goes for those whose wealth and privilege has enabled them to get the much-vaunted “western education”, although not for the same reasons obviously.

The cost of study in countries like the US and UK is, relative to average incomes in a country like Thailand, astronomical. At minimum, Thai students studying abroad are spending in one month what many Thai families live on for six. The likelihood of someone receiving this sort of bounty from the operation of the Thai political and economic system genuinely finding fault with it is not great; at best, you get “hip” young adults who talk a good game while out with friends in the fashionable restaurants and night-clubs of Bangkok but go home and abuse the servants, while at worst you get the lying, manipulative, corrupt “ajarns” and journalists that proliferate like bacteria in a sewer in Thailand.

And anyone who has worked in or around western universities catering to foreign students knows that it is unspoken policy that “you pays your money and you gets your degree”, not to mention the outright cheating, the papers written by “tutors” in the guise of “proofreading”, and the simple fact that instructors have all but given up trying to maintain any sort of standards in the classroom. As is evident from the lack of critical thinking on the part of ex-pats who go on and on about the lack of critical thinking amongst Thais, a “western education” guarantees absolutely nothing.

For the few whose English is proficient when they leave Thailand and enter “good” universities abroad, of course a real education is possible. Abhisit Vejajjiva is the perfect example of what you get in this case: someone who talks like a liberal democrat and impresses foreigners while relying on backroom deals with generals and thugs to have any sort of “political” career at all.

4. It is not the case that significant numbers of the protestors on either side of the vast divide are “pawns”. It is a commonly held view that the “ordinary” Thais who make up the bulk of the street protestors in both movements are neither acting out of rational self-interest nor principle. Somehow or other they have been bamboozled, brainwashed or bought.

The corollary to this is of course the oft-stated belief that the protracted crisis in Thai governance over the past 8 or 9 years is nothing more nor less than an intra-elite conflict. Disagreement exists over just exactly who makes up the “sides”, but that they are members of the elite and it is they who are driving the conflict is generally accepted. There are also disagreements about what is really at stake, with opinions ranging from the purely financial, the “it’s about the graft” position, to the belief that this is and has always been primarily about controlling the upcoming succession in the monarchy.

5. The simple fact of the matter is that at its root this is a class struggle. As distasteful as it has become in these neo-liberal times to refer to anything as a class struggle or a battle of rich against poor, it has to be acknowledged that without the vast divide that exists between rich and poor in Thailand there would be nothing to catch fire when the elite rhetoric courts and sparks.

These posts by Bangkok Pundit, http://tinyurl.com/lbq4cqg & http://tinyurl.com/kqnaqrg, provide a little more substance to what should be obvious to anyone observing the protests over the past 5 years.

Neither movement is “pure” in terms of class membership. Pointing out that Thaksin and the leadership of the UDD are not from the lower classes is the usual “argument” presented by those whose anti-democratic impulse feels the need to hide its face while spewing vile classist and racist imprecations regarding the “ordinary Thais” who make up the bulk of the Redshirt/UDD movement. There are also the large numbers of “ordinary” Thais who attend the PDRC rallies who come in for their fair share of classist jibes from the more “liberal” side of the commentariat.

I suppose this could mean that the number of middle class whites who worked and fought for the Civil Rights movement in the USA meant that that movement was not primarily about race. Or that because Lyndon Johnson was a racist pig who married a woman who made millions for the couple while Lyndon was still in the military, his successful promulgation of Civil Rights and Great Society legislation somehow didn’t count. LBJ was motivated by a drive for power more than any notion of justice or racial equality; does that mean that people supporting him were tools?

As the first Thaksin administration aptly demonstrated, voters can gain advantages from electing governments that feel constrained to follow through on promises they made to get their votes. These people, who no one before Thaksin ever bothered to welcome into “Thai-style” democratic politics, learned fast, and the result is what has been happening in the political arena over the past 5 years.

6. Thaksin, for all his wealth and “political” savvy, unlike his opponents, is 100% dependent on the democratic system and the votes he has attracted from huge numbers of Thailand’s less privileged citizens. He is “using” his supporters, particularly those attached to the UDD, to gain power and wealth; they are “using” him to gain and retain enfranchisement in the country’s flawed democratic system. Thaksin, then, is a traitor to his class and has earned their undying emnity; his supporters are representing their class and using Thaksin’s money and organization to do so.

7. Bangkok’s middle classes are not in the main all that interested in democracy. They have nothing to gain from a genuine democratic system: they can afford the bribes they offer to get a “good” education for their children from kindergarden up; they are not victimized by the police checkpoints that pull over motorcycles and taxis and extract the 1 or 200 baht fines that help them put their children into the same schools; at work, obsequiousness and ass-kissing are much easier to achieve than the hard work, skill and intelligence that would be demanded in a more meritocratic system. And so they align themselves with the asses they’ve been raised to kiss since birth.

8. The southern Thais, who have provided loyal and unquestioning support for the non-democratic Democrat party for over two decades, have their own reasons for preferring the old system over any move toward more genuine democracy. Bottom line in the south is that graft and influence have paid better for all concerned than real democracy might, so it’s better to stick to the laughable faith in “clean politics” that supporters of the Democrats tell themselves is what Abhisit and Chuan Leekphai represent (while mafioso like Suthep keep things running in the background).

You have to wonder how long this blatant self-deception can continue to operate now that Kamnan Suthep, king of Palm Oil and Land Distribution, is actually the most public face of southern politics.

9. This most recent round of yellow fascist insurrection should put paid to the mythical notion that the southern electorate is somehow more “sophisticated” than their poorer, less-educated brethren in the north and north-east of the country.

In interview after interview with northern and north-eastern Thai supporters of the Redshirts, these less educated folks admit to Thaksin’s corruption and the imperfections of his “regimes” before going on to give reasons for their support of such a “bad” man.

The reasons always fall into two categories. Self-interest is invoked when talking about the “populist” policies that go back to the initial TRT victory at the beginning of the millennium. And the principles of democracy and equality, however “imperfectly” understood, are invoked when vilifying the military and judicial coups which have repeatedly disenfranchised  voters who have repeatedly supported Thaksin over the past 13 years.

Southerners, on the other hand, while even more eager to label Thaksin as an evil and corrupt man, then turn around to explain their support for the Democrats and the “good people” who will  no doubt find a way to put the Democrats back in power by invoking the “goodness” of “good” people like Kamnan Suthep. No doubt their “sophistication” would extend to include Newin Chidchob in the “good” column if their Democrat masters told them it would be a “good” idea. After all, to sophisticates and “educate” people like these, “goodness” means whatever the “good people” say it does.

King Lear would have understood the meaning of this sort of “sophistication”.

10. Unlike the farcical productions that pass for “politics” in western countries, Thai politics are real. At the moment, the political choice in Thailand is not between two political parties with virtually identical policies dictated by international capital and the military-industrial complex, but between two systems of government.

On one side is democracy and on the other is military-supported oligarchy. It is possible to spin these two simplistic formulations into infinitely ramifying complexities in discussion, and no doubt citizens of liberal-democracies will want to do so. The problem is of course that this is not a matter for “discussion” in Thailand; it is a matter for decision.

It would also appear to be a matter of life and death. Repeatedly over the past 40 years, the Thai oligarchy has demonstrated its willingness to kill to resist democratization. And elements of the pro-democracy movements over the same period have demonstrated a willingness to die.

It’s hard to see how, given the seriousness of the situation, this conflict can be resolved through discussion. To continue to push for democratic government in Thailand will almost surely end in violence.

The question then becomes: Is it worth it?

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8 thoughts on “Ten Things to Remember When Thinking About Thai Politics”

  1. ” There is nothing particularly “educated” about the Thai middle classes. “

    Also, status anxiety means they’re afraid to hold the “wrong opinions,” as judged by the ruling elite.

  2. Yes, very good analysis, and the incredible thing is how many journalists reporting on this, after so many years keep repeating the same incorrect, shallow things…. One could become cynical! Btw. I find these comments useful as well http://uglytruththailand.wordpress.com
    Cheers
    Pier

  3. This post is actually about a year and a half old. Although it represents a kind of summary of my views at the time, it was also written around the time that those views began to change. I would love to have a discussion with other interested people, those who more or less agree and those who absolutely do not.

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